Gun rights advocates suffered a major defeat this week as the US Supreme Court essentially ruled that a person cannot legally buy a gun as a gift for a friend.
The court upheld the federal ban on what often are called “straw purchases” – that is, buying a gun for someone who cannot legally do so – but in the process also prohibited much more.
The case upholds Bruce Abramski’s conviction for purchasing a Glock 19 pistol for his uncle, Angel Alvarez, in his name. Both men could have legally bought it.
A former police officer, Abramski was trying to get a law enforcement discount and save his uncle some money. Federal agents learned about the transfer when they discovered a receipt for the gun in his house while searching it in connection to an unrelated incident.
The court upheld his conviction in a narrow 5-4 ruling. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissent and argued: “The Court makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner.”
The majority of justices, though, said the rule is necessary.
“No piece of information is more important under federal firearms law than the identity of a gun’s purchaser—the person who acquires a gun as a result of a transaction with a licensed dealer,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the court’s opinion.
Five Years in Prison for Lying on a Form
Abramski was later sentenced to five years of probation for lying on Question 11a. of form 4473, the paper that buyers have to fill out when they purchase a gun. By making a false statement, Abramski violated the Gun Control Act of 1986, the court ruled.
Abramski’s attorneys argued that their client didn’t violate the law because Alvarez was not a criminal and not legally prohibited from owning a gun.
“Abramski objects that because Alvarez could own a gun, the statute’s core purpose—‘keeping guns out of the hands’ of criminals and other prohibited persons—‘is not even implicated,’” Kagan noted. She also said that gun dealers are effectively law enforcement agents under current federal gun laws.
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“As earlier noted, the federal gun law makes the dealer “[t]he principal agent of federal enforcement,” Kagan wrote.
The good news for gun rights advocates is that four of the five Supreme Court justices rejected Kagan’s logic. In his dissent, Scalia argued that Abramski did not violate the Gun Control Act because the law specifically allows purchasers to transfer or give weapons to law-abiding citizens.
“By refusing to apply lenity here, the majority turns its back on a liberty-protecting and democracy-promoting rule that is ‘perhaps not much less old than construction itself,’” Scalia wrote. Scalia also noted that Form 4473 does not specifically ask buyers if they plan to sell or give the gun away.
“The long list of information that this regulation requires to be kept in the dealer’s records does not include whether the transferee is buying the gun for an eligible third party,” Scalia wrote.
An About-Face on Gun Control
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor supported Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined Scalia in dissent.
The ruling strengthens the power of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF or ATF), New Republic writer Adam Winkler said. Winkler also noted that the case shows that Kennedy supports the idea of gun control in some cases. In the past, Kennedy has often voted against gun control and sided with gun rights groups.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) was among the organizations that filed a brief in support of Abramski.
Gun experts say that gift receipts are the best way to buy someone a gun.
The case was Abramski v. United States.
Should Abramski have been prosecuted? Tell us what you think about the law in the comments section below.